Godswill Akpabio, a senator from Akwa Ibom State, is perhaps one Nigerian politician with the biggest task in this Saturday’s elections.
First, Mr Akpabio, who is running for a second term, must ensure he beats his main opponent, Chris Ekpenyong of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to continue representing Akwa Ibom North-West in the Senate.
Two, he has to get his “boys” (the APC candidates) to win the four House of Representatives seats in his district, in order to convincingly stamp his authority on the politics of the area.
And finally, he has to make good a promise he has often made – deliver Akwa Ibom State to President Muhammadu Buhari!
The last of the tasks, to say the least, appears herculean; Akwa Ibom is one state that has refused to buy into Mr Buhari’s leadership style and his administration’s programmes.
If there is anything, most people in the state, including some supporters of the All Progressives Congress (APC), appear eager to punish the president whom they blame for the nation’s economic woes.
More so, the people, who are predominantly Christians, seem to have bought into the lies that Mr Buhari has a hidden plan to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state.
The task before Mr Akpabio would not be over at all this Saturday; he still has to work for the APC candidate, Nsima Ekere’s victory in the Akwa Ibom governorship election.
A combination of all these tasks has pushed Mr Akpabio to have higher stakes, much more than any politician in Akwa Ibom State, in the 2019 general elections.
The political battle ahead looks tough, especially considering the fact that the senator is up against the PDP, which has become like a religion in Akwa Ibom, fighting against the very system he himself helped set up and made formidable over the years.
“Akwa Ibom has generally been a PDP state,” said Jack Essien, a former chairman of Ikono Local Government Area, who once worked with Mr Akpabio as his personal aide when the senator was governor.
“For us in Ikono-Ini federal constituency, we always return PDP like 90 per cent.”
Mr Essien is now an aide to Akwa Ibom governor, Udom Emmanuel.
“With the election being free and fair, PDP will not have much challenge in Akwa Ibom North-West. For every 1,000 voters, you see in the district, about 700 are PDP,” Mr Essien told PREMIUM TIMES.
“As members of the PDP, we don’t vote for individuals, we vote for the party.
“If the APC were to be so strong on the ground, they shouldn’t be thinking of using federal might for the elections. You just need to go to your polling unit and vote. We are going to see federal might clash with the people’s might on Saturday.”
When asked how it feels to work against Mr Akpabio, a man who helped him up in politics, Mr Essien said “Akpabio taught those of us who worked closely with him what loyalty truly means. You must be loyal to your boss.
“Today, Udom (Emmanuel) is my boss, I am loyal to him. Akpabio also taught us party loyalty.”
Mr Essien’s remarks may symbolise the thinking of some politicians who have worked previously with Mr Akpabio.
But we are talking about Mr Akpabio here, and not just any politician; Akwa Ibom, for long, has remained Mr Akpabio’s chess board, and the politicians, his pawns.
The senator is blessed with a rare gift of knowing how to show compassion and ruthlessness at the same time, towards the same set of people. He knows how to reward a people and how to afflict them, strategically, in order to put himself in a vantage position, and has enjoyed a great following over the years in the state politics.
Mr Akpabio is not a stranger to tough political battles. In fact, like some people in the state say, great political battles, most times instigated by him is what makes the senator thick.
In 2006, he had revolted against and defeated the very system that propped him politically, when as a commissioner he defied the then governor of the state, Victor Attah, to win the PDP governorship primary and eventually win the 2007 general election.
Mr Attah wanted his son-in-law, Udoma Ekarika, to succeed him as governor.
In 2015, Mr Akpabio, against all expectations, dribbled, and suppressed his political allies, including his most trusted friend, Umana Umana, to push for an “outsider” Mr Emmanuel to succeed him as governor.
Today, to his credit, the senator has again reunited with his former allies – Mr Umana, Mr Nsima, John Udoedehe, and others – with a game plan of stopping Governor Emmanuel’s re-election bid and re-shaping, once again, the political map of the state.
Mr Akpabio’s defection from the PDP to the APC in August last year is one of the biggest events in the history of Akwa Ibom politics. The senator has repeatedly said his defection is meant to take Akwa Ibom and the South-south into the mainstream of national politics.
“We are a minority, we can’t afford to remain in the opposition for too long,” the senator said.
Most analysts who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES predict Mr Akpabio’s victory against his main opponent, Mr Ekpenyong, a former deputy governor of the state.
The argument in favour of Mr Akpabio is that, through his leadership as governor of the state then and also as a first-time senator, he has given his Annang ethnic group a pride of place in the state politics. Therefore, they say, it would be hard for his people to sacrifice him in the election, just because of PDP.
“In Annang nation, Akpabio is synonymous with leadership,” Boniface Akang, a lawyer and an APC chieftain in Mr Akpabio’s hometown, Essien Udim, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“No sane person in Annang land would vote against Akpabio. In fact, if a child in the womb were to be allowed to vote in this election, he would have voted for Akpabio.
“I don’t see any threat to his success at the polls. I don’t see him getting less than 85 per cent at the polls. He will win everywhere, mark my words,” Mr Akang said.
Where Mr Akpabio would have naturally been expected to encounter challenges in his re-election bid is the Abak Five (five local government areas that were formerly under the erstwhile Abak Local Government Area) because of the feelings of political marginalisation in the area.
The five local government areas are Abak, Oruk Anam, Ukanafun, Etim Ekpo, and Ika.
Under a zoning arrangement, it was the turn of the Abak Five to produce a senator for the district in 2015. But Mr Akpabio snatched it and rewarded them, instead, with the position of a deputy governor, which is occupied by Moses Ekpo.
“If PDP had given the ticket to someone from Abak Five, maybe Godswill Akpabio would have had a lot of challenges,” Uwem Udoma, a former lawmaker and an APC chieftain from Abak, told PREMIUM TIMES. “Giving it to someone like Chris Ekpenyong, I don’t see him as a match for Senator Akpabio.
“I can tell you even without results being declared, the popularity of Godswill Akpabio in Akwa Ibom North-West, especially in Abak Five, is overwhelming.
“Both PDP and APC members in the district are in agreement that Godswill Akpabio should go back to the Senate,” Mr Udoma said.
Mr Akpabio himself, probably sensing that he may have an easy victory in his re-election, have been campaigning more for Mr Buhari and the APC governorship candidate, Mr Ekere.
The senator on Thursday sent a message, through a public statement, to the PDP in the state – the wailing of your self-acclaimed elders cannot stop your impending defeat at the polls.
In politics, they say, anything can happen.
The senator’s opponent, Mr Ekpenyong, is not a pushover in politics, having been a foundation member of the PDP in the state. He enjoys the backing of the state government and Governor Emmanuel who is eager to see the end of Mr Akpabio’s reign in the state politics.
The PDP, in their fight against Mr Akpabio, has been trying to demonise the senator as a corrupt, selfish and unreliable politician.
Governor Emmanuel, in an attempt to put a knife through the cord that binds Mr Akpabio’s family, appointed the senator’s relative, Prince Akpabio, as a commissioner in the state executive council, shortly after the senator defected from the PDP to the APC, September last year.
The younger Akpabio has been campaigning and mobilising people in their hometown against the senator.
It is left to see how this would play during the Saturday’s elections.
During a recent political rally at Obot Akara, where he comes from, Mr Ekpenyong talked tough about the election.
“We have finished campaigns, we have finished the election. We are only waiting for the D-day,” he said.
“We know how to do elections,” Mr Ekpenyong assured Governor Emmanuel, who was present at the rally. “When we finish in Obot Akara we will move on to another part of the state to give support to those who don’t know how to vote.”
The governor smiled.
Mr Ekpenyong warned those who have “federal might” not to dare step foot on Obot Akara and the entire state on the Election Day.
“We will surely extend our boundary from Obot Akara to all parts of Akwa Ibom,” he said.
As a sign of what shape the elections may take in the district, 11 buses hired by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to ferry election materials were set ablaze in Obot Akara on February 16, before INEC postponed the elections. Two persons were reportedly shot dead in the incident.
“If Senator Akpabio wins re-election, and Buhari and Nsima (Ekere) also win, Akpabio would have elevated himself from being a great teacher to a god in the politics of Akwa Ibom,” a businessman in Akwa Ibom who is non-partisan, told PREMIUM TIMES, Friday.
“But I don’t see him winning everything,” he added.